A year ago, the Rams and San Francisco 49ers were dueling dumpster fires.
They had six wins between them, a pair of untested head coaches, and no clear answer at quarterback.
Now, faster than most anyone could have predicted, they’re two of the NFL’s more interesting teams, and their storied rivalry, on ice for decades, is rekindled.
In fact, the NFC West has been flipped inside-out, with Seattle and Arizona far less menacing than when the Seahawks were still basking in the afterglow of consecutive Super Bowl appearances and the Cardinals were fresh off reaching the NFC title game.
It’s a tale of how the West was redone.
Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett are gone from Seattle, and Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor could be on their way out. All were defensive fixtures.
In Arizona, coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer have retired, and Wednesday the club released playmaking safety Tyrann Mathieu. The Cardinals added Sam Bradford, as part of a handful of quarterbacking Band-Aids slapped on teams all around the league.
The Rams engineered a major defensive rebuild with the acquisition of cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, who met with the media at team headquarters Wednesday, and by trading edge rusher Robert Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree. On offense, the Rams lost receiver Sammy Watkins in free agency, a setback for the league’s top-scoring team although probably not a devastating one.
Fortifying a secondary makes a lot of sense for a team that led the NFL in scoring last season. Teams are going to have to throw, and throw a lot, to keep pace with this Rams offense. What’s more, Talib and Peters are lockdown corners who can play man coverage and therefore free teammates to stop the run and get after the quarterback.
Trading for this tandem also checks a box atop the to-do list, meaning the Rams don’t have a pressing need to use their No. 23 pick on a cornerback, especially when the class isn’t especially strong at that position. The Rams can look for a defensive lineman, linebacker or maybe an offensive tackle who can learn at the elbow of 36-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth and eventually replace him.
Talib and Peters are combustible players who have a history of outbursts. There’s a chance the Rams have jeopardized their chemistry by signing nitro and glycerin, but team officials insist they did their homework before making the trades and are comfortable that both players were widely respected in their locker rooms.
In a testament to their remarkable U-turn of a 2017 season, the Rams ran the table at NFL honors, with Sean McVay selected coach of the year, Aaron Donald defensive player of the year and Todd Gurley offensive player of the year.
The 49ers had the high-profile addition of Sherman, who is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, but most of their makeover happened with the hiring of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, and the trade in November for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
After losing their first nine games, the 49ers finished by winning six of their final seven, including all five that Garoppolo started (although the Rams rested their starters in a meaningless finale). By all indications, San Francisco has turned the corner after losing 34 of its first 41 games in the post-Jim Harbaugh era.
Getting their quarterback made a world of difference to the 49ers. Clearly, Minnesota feels the same way about apparently landing prized free agent Kirk Cousins. But most if not all of the others in the wild quarterback grab of the last several days — Tyrod Taylor (Cleveland), Case Keenum (Denver), Teddy Bridgewater (New York Jets), Bradford — look like big-money bridges to tide over their new clubs until better and cheaper (for the moment) long-term solutions are found. So that won’t necessarily mean this year’s promising crop of quarterback prospects will be pushed down in the draft.
Then again, the Philadelphia Eagles just won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, who mulled retirement before his career got its second wind.